A Texas man was arrested Friday and charged with threatening election and other government officials in Georgia, in the first case brought by a Justice Department task force formed to combat such threats, authorities said.
“Georgia Patriots it’s time for us to take back our state from these Lawless treasonous traitors. It’s time to invoke our Second Amendment right it’s time to put a bullet in the treasonous Chinese [Official A]. Then we work our way down to [Official B] the local and federal corrupt judges,” Stark wrote, according to the indictment.
Georgia officials, in particular, were targeted by hostile messages after they refused to back President Donald Trump’s bogus claims of election fraud. Trump called Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) the “enemy of the people” after the election went against him, and he urged Raffensperger in a phone call to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat.
On that call, Trump took aim at Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and a low-level election worker who herself was subjected to a wave of threats. Trump called that worker “a vote scammer, a professional vote scammer and hustler.”
Georgia, though, was hardly an anomaly. Election officials across the country have warned about an ongoing barrage of criticism and personal attacks — many of them fueled by Trump repeatedly raising unfounded doubts about the 2020 election. Some election workers and officials have left their posts in fear. A study by the Brennan Center released in June found that 1 in 3 election officials feel unsafe because of their jobs.
Kenneth Polite Jr., head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said the election threats task force has received more than 850 referrals of potentially harassing and offensive statements, resulting in dozens of open investigations or efforts to mitigate danger. “During the 2020 election cycle, and the events that followed, these unsung heroes came under unprecedented verbal attack for doing nothing more than their jobs,” Polite said.
Some election workers and observers have worried the Justice Department has not been moving aggressively enough to prosecute those making the threats, noting that — until Friday — the task force that was launched on June 25 had not brought a single case.
“There is an impression that bad actors are not being held accountable, and they can use threats to try to intimidate election officials,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) said in an interview before Stark’s arrest.
“I do appreciate them launching the task force, but I do think there’s a lot of work to do,” she said.
In a statement Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland vowed the department would “hold accountable those who violate federal law by using violence or threatening violence to target election workers fulfilling their public duties.”
Polite said developing cases often requires months of work, as investigators gather evidence, interview witnesses and consider possible First Amendment legal issues.
John Keller, principal deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, said in a statement that threats against election workers had “historically been handled primarily as a state or local matter, usually without significant federal involvement.”
“This is changing rapidly in response to the surge in threats nationwide since the last election cycle,” he said.
Legal observers say the focus is necessary because of the magnitude of the problem.
“It’s bigger than any one individual threat against one election official because the combined atmosphere of threats across the country to election officials is undermining democracy,” said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law School and a former Justice Department national security official, who also was interviewed before Stark’s arrest.
The indictment alleges Stark, of Leander, Tex., referenced three government officials, the names of whom prosecutors obscured in the charging documents. A person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic information, said Raffensperger and Kemp were among those allegedly targeted.
Stark posted his message as thousands of Trump supporters were traveling to Washington to protest the 2020 election results, wrongly convinced that Trump had won. A day later, on Jan. 6, some of those protesters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers were formally tallying Biden’s win.
“It’s our duty as American Patriots to put an end to the lives of these traitors and take back our country by force we can no longer wait on the corrupt law enforcement in the corrupt courts. If we want our country back we have to exterminate these people,” Stark allegedly wrote.
“One good loyal Patriot deer hunter in camo and a rifle can send a very clear message to these corrupt governors.. milita [sic] up Georgia it’s time to spill blood . . . we need to pay a visit to [Official C] and her family as well and put a bullet her behind the ears,” the indictment quotes the message as saying.
In a statement issued Friday, Raffensperger said: “I strongly condemn threats against election workers and those who volunteer in elections. These are the people who make our democracy work.”
He also took aim at comments President Biden made at a Wednesday news conference suggesting that the legitimacy of future elections could be tied to voting rights legislation for which Biden has pushed. The White House press secretary later insisted Biden “was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election.”
“Given President Biden’s statement Wednesday casting doubt on the legitimacy of our upcoming elections, we need to support our local election officials and volunteers now more than ever,” Raffensperger said in the statement.
A lawyer appointed to represent Stark on Friday did not return an email seeking comment.
In a recent interview, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) said the barrage of hostile messages is especially vexing because staff must review them all for imminent danger.
“It’s really impacting the work of our entire office,” Hobbs said. “We feel like we have to go through them and listen to them to see if there’s anything reportable or actionable.”
Hobbs said she has increased security around her home as the number of troubling messages has grown, adding locks and cameras. She now uses a private security firm for public appearances. The threats, she said, seemed to tick up around a Republican-commissioned review of nearly 2.1 million ballots, which ultimately confirmed Biden’s win in Maricopa County, and also around Trump’s visits to the state.
Keller said federal agents and prosecutors across the country had been designated to help collect and analyze threats to election workers, most of which come through emails, texts, calls and commentary on social media.
McCord said what constitutes a real threat, as opposed to mere alarming message, can vary based on the case law or jury instructions in a certain jurisdiction as well as the attitudes of judges and prosecutors.
“If there are cases with bad facts that make bad law, that impacts the way your jury instructions are,” McCord said. “There are jurisdictions where the prosecutors are going to be much more demanding — or picky — about what cases they will bring, and what cases they won’t.”
The Justice Department has lost cases before, even with vile, seemingly violent messages at issue. In 2011, for example, a federal appeals court threw out the conviction of a man who had seemed to threaten then-President Obama, writing on an online message board “Re: Obama fk the [expletive], he will have a 50 cal in the head soon” and “shoot the [expletive].”
The majority of judges determined that one of the statements was “predictive” and the other “exhortatory,” and that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude the man “intended his statements to be taken as threats.” The Justice Department ultimately abandoned the case.
Amy Gardner contributed to this report.